More Than A Utilitarian Material: Fascinating Uses Of Steel

6 October 2014
 Categories: , Blog


The mass production of steel began in the 1850s, an era that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and numerous modern industries. Today, steel is omnipresent, found in all kinds of products from kitchen implements to dental instruments. However, the pervasiveness of utilitarian and industrial steel products overshadows some of the most interesting uses of the material. The following list includes a few of the most fascinating uses of steel.

Lightning Protection for NASA Flights

Despite the billions of dollars spent on NASA programs to explore space, mere lightning could derail a liftoff that took months to plan. In fact, before the space shuttle program ended, the federal agency postponed the 2009 flight of the Endeavour by 24 hours due to a severe electrical storm.

In order to decrease the effects of lightning on shuttle and rocket launches, the agency built a launch pad lightning protection system made of steel. The otherworldly appearance of the steel protection system adds to the futuristic look of the space station.

Imagine the steel services NASA required and the work that went into designing and fabricating a structure that can protect rockets from direct hits of lightning.

The protection system includes:

  • Three steel towers shaped like pylons that rise 600 feet into the air
  • Overhead wires that run between the tower apexes
  • State-of-the-art meteorological sensors
  • High-definition cameras that hang on the towers and capture lightning in full color

World Famous Sculptures

Some of the most stunning publicly accessible art in the world consists primarily, if not exclusively, of steel. If you take an art walk tour of many major cities, you may be surprised at the number of sculptures formed from steel.

For example, Chicago's downtown includes several major steel sculptures including Alexander Calder's massive "Flamingo" of 53-foot tall arches, an untitled Picasso metal sculpture and the iconic "Cloud Gate," a stainless steel structure nicknamed "The Bean." Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" includes 168 welded plates that appear to be seamless, an artistic wonder. It weighs 100 tons and is one of the largest public sculptures in the world.

Many world-renowned artists became known for specializing in steel structures and their innovative welding techniques including Anthony Caro, Willard Boepple and Richard Serra. In fact, these three artists worked on a steel sculpture together, "Eleanor at 7:15", a piece now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Steel Drums

The unmistakable sound of steel drums that create the rhythms of calypso music brings forth images of Caribbean paradises. One of the most famous entertainers with roots in the region, Harry Belafonte, helped to popularize the instrument with his 1956 hit album "Calypso" that featured the legendary track "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)."

However, the steel drum has its roots in World War II-era Trinidad when musicians used old barrels that previously contained fuel and other liquids to make a sweet-sounding instrument.

Today, a typical drum consists of a steel barrel with a concave top. Steel drum experts carefully pound dents in the concave side to provide different pitches. So the next time you hear the beautiful, lilting sounds of calypso, remember that the music is driven by a simple steel barrel tuned to perfection.